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U.S. foreign affairs expert: Japan-ROK relations critical for Asian security

Interview with Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies, Council for Foreign Relations, by Shuhei Kuromi, Washington Bureau



The agreement between the Japanese and ROK governments on the comfort women issue last December was epochmaking in that it was based on a common understanding of the need to break the prolonged stagnation in bilateral relations and to recognize the existence of women who were victimized during the war. I was impressed with the deep bonds and sharing of common values between the two peoples.


Henceforth, the two governments will be coordinating vigorously on when the Japanese government will make the 1 billion yen payment to the new foundation and on the question of removing the statue of a young girl [symbolizing the comfort women] in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. The most important purpose of the agreement is to give relief to the surviving former comfort women who are advanced in age as soon as possible, so there must be no delay in implementing the accord.


It took some seven months to set up the foundation after the bilateral agreement was signed. President Park Geun-hye, who was responsible for this agreement, has only about 18 months left in her term of office. If she is unable to implement the accord fully before she steps down, it is feared that the agreement may be retracted. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would certainly also want to avoid a breakdown of the bilateral agreement which represented a finale of the 50th anniversary of normalization of Japan-ROK diplomatic relations last year.


The U.S. cannot remain indifferent to this issue. The Asian security environment has never been harsher. North Korea is conducting repeated missile tests to extend the range of its missiles, which are now close to reaching the United States. Workers’ Party of Korea Chairman Kim Jong Un is aiming to make North Korea a nuclear power, and there is no indication at all that his despotic rule of the country and provocations against South Korea will stop. China is also pushing ahead with its high-handed maritime advances in the East and South China Sea.


In order to deal with the unpredictable threat posed by North Korea, there is an urgent need for the U.S. to strengthen relations with its allies, Japan and the ROK.


In a contingency on the Korean peninsula, the U.S. military bases in Japan will serve as critical rear support bases. The ROK will have to ensure the safety of foreigners, including the Japanese, in the country. Close cooperation among Japan, the U.S., and the ROK will be essential.


For this reason, Japan and the ROK need to sign a General Security of Military Information Agreemen (GSOMIA) for sharing confidential information on North Korea’s nuclear arms and missiles and an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) for mutual provision of military supplies as soon as possible, in order to strengthen security cooperation. The Japan-ROK side is currently the weakest side of the Japan-U.S.-ROK triangle, compared to the Japan-U.S. and U.S.-ROK sides. The U.S. has been urging the conclusion of these two agreements in recent years.


However, security cannot be strengthened by putting in place systems like GSOMIA and ACSA alone. Unless there is respect and trust between the Japanese and South Korean peoples as partners, these systems will not function on the frontlines of defense. National sentiments in both countries have been seriously affected by conflicts over a quarter century. It is necessary to use the implemention of the agreement on the comfort women issue as a step toward restoration of trust.

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